Monday 20 February 2012

Planning and researching your novel, with Gillian Cross

Because we love our fellow Slushpilers so very much, today we bring you Gillian Cross, and her top five tips for planning and research. Gillian Cross has written over 40 books for children (yes, you read that right!) and has won a couple of prizes along the way, including the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Award and the Smarties Prize. She influenced a generation of school kids by making them even more terrified of their headmasters than normal with The Demon Headmaster series, and then terrified them all over again with urban thrillers including Tightrope. Her most recent novel is Where I Belong.

1. Discover your own way of planning - and how much you need to do in advance - and don't be intimidated by what other writers tell you. I know lots of fantastic planning tools, ranging from drawing a map of where the story happens to working out the whole plot backwards, on little white file cards. They're awesome to think about, but they've never worked for me. I always have to do my planning after I've written the first draft and the sooner I accept that the better I get on. It's always a struggle though, because planning seems easier than actually writing.

2. The key thing is to get the stuff down. Once you've got it, you can revise it, cut it, expand it or alter it out of all recognition.

But you must have something solid to work with. And that doesn't come from the same part of the brain as planning and editing.

3. Remember that people are one of the best research resources, so don't be shy of asking. I'm always embarrassed to ask people for information, but when I manage to pluck up courage I've hardly ever been rejected. Most people are very generous with their time and love being a source of useful information. It's important to work out what you really need to know though, because no one else can guess that. And the difficulty is, of course, that you don't always know what you want to know, until it turns up, because the things that are most helpful are often small, inconsequential details.

This ENORMOUS PILE of books formed just part of Gillian's research for Where I Belong.

4. Don't let research become an end in itself if you want to finish the book. In my experience, the more you learn about something the more fascinating it becomes. Research can go on for ever and sometimes there's a danger of forgetting how little your readers will actually understand unless you do lots of explaining. (Don't!) I once wrote a book about two boys who restore a 1930s motorbike and the story got lost in the details of sandblasting cylinders etc.

5. Don't panic about remembering everything you've found out.

If you try and hold it all in your head, you won't be able to concentrate properly on the story. A moment will come when you need to put the research on one side and write.

You can always check the details later. And a story isn't a research paper. Anything you write will be fine as long as you can get away with it. And that has more to do with storytelling than with correctness.

Slushpile note: If you found that helpful (or even just enjoyable!), check out Linda Newbery's Research and Planning blog here.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Roles in publishing: Bryony Woods, Literary Agent's Assistant

Bryony Woods is obsessed with all things book-related, and is lucky enough to have her ideal job – working in one the UK’s top literary agencies. She started her career working in libraries, where she developed her passion for children’s and YA fiction, before going on to complete an MA in Publishing at UCL. Whilst completing the MA she interned in literary agencies across London, before being offered her current job at the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency in 2010.
As a person who has always loved books and reading, I think I might just have the best job in the world. I am constantly surrounded by books and manuscripts, and I love nothing more than finding a talented new writer with a book that’s crying out to be published.

But although many writer-orientated websites focus on this aspect of the job, looking for new talent is only a small part of what I actually do.

It’s not all glamour and cocktail parties.

While I may occasionally get to go out into the world and hobnob with super-talented authors and editors, the majority of my time is spent taking care of all the little jobs that keep a literary agency ticking over – updating the website, maintaining the databases that keep track of territories and sub-rights deals (such as audio, large print and film deals), chasing payments, sending proof copies to sub-agents etc.

I spend a lot of time reading contracts, checking the language used in various clauses and the percentages stated (e.g. royalties). Agents spend many hours negotiating the finer details of publishing contracts on behalf of their clients, so it’s important to ensure that the contract we send to an author for signing is correct.

Luckily for me, I love contracts almost as much as I love books. And no, I don’t think that’s weird. Honest.

The creative side of my job includes writing blurbs and putting together colourful catalogues of our clients and the titles we represent, as well as making up artists’ portfolios for our illustrator clients. This is especially important in the run up to major industry book fairs such as London or Bologna, where we have lots of meetings with editors who’ll be looking to acquire new authors or titles.

I also deal with some of the permission requests that come to the agency. When a person or company – perhaps an editor compiling an anthology, or a revision guide or website – requests the right to print an extract from a client’s work (most often a poem or short story), I will get out my trusty calculator and negotiate the best possible licence terms and fee.

But my absolute favourite part of the job is finding new, talented writers, and wonderful books that we can help turn into a commercial success. I am constantly on the lookout – whether I’m reading submissions at my desk, meeting new writers at a party, even while I eat and sleep.

Reading submissions (aka the Slush Pile) is a full-time job in itself, and everyone in the office pitches in and does their share of reading on top of their other day-to-day workload. We get thousands – yes, THOUSANDS – of submissions, of all kinds: the good, the bad, the truly weird and sometimes the downright ugly.

But every now and then I come across a voice so powerful that it grabs me and demands to be heard, a character that I just can’t get out of my head, or a page-turner that makes me drop absolutely everything else just so I can finish reading it. That’s when I know I’ve found something really special.

Tips for writers:

I’m often asked for advice on how best to approach an agent. But to be honest, the only thing an agent cares about when looking at your submission is that you’ve written a damn good book.

Other than that, I’d simply advise that you check individual agency guidelines, keep your approach smart and professional, and that you’re passionate about your work. If that passion shines through in your covering letter, an agent is more likely to want to pick up your manuscript and start reading.

The best moment so far:

I’ve tried and failed to pinpoint just one moment since I started this job that stands out as the best. It could be the first time I read a submission and fell head-over-heels in love with it; it could be logging on to Amazon just after a book was published and seeing the first fantastic customer review come in; it could be the excitement when a long-awaited sequel was delivered by a client (or maybe the moment during reading where I realised it was even better than the first book); or it could be the any of the times I’ve entered the office kitchen to discover that someone has brought in a cake. As I say, it’s impossible to choose.

The thing that most surprised me about the job:

The thing that still surprises me is the pace. It’s easy to get the impression from various blogs or websites that all agency employees do is lie around reading manuscripts, eating cake* and drinking champagne**.

But the truth is that most days I barely have time to stop and catch my breath.

Even when I’ve reached the end of my mammoth TO DO list, there are still emails to respond to, phone calls to answer, submissions and manuscripts and reviews to read.

*Ok, I admit it – there is quite a lot of cake.
** There may also be the occasional glass of champagne

Sometimes this job is very stressful, and I constantly find myself wishing that there were more hours in the day.

It’s not a job I could ever leave at the office, and my pile of Books-To-Read is usually taller than I am (and I’m not exactly short).

But aside from the perilous towers of books slowly taking over my flat, I honestly think I have the best job in the world. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.
Slushpile note: submission guidelines for the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency can be found here. And OF COURSE Caroline Sheldon is the best literary agent in the entire world: she sold Slated, as reported here. Oops. I'm giving away my secret identity again, aren't I?

Tuesday 14 February 2012

SCBWI Undiscovered Voices 2012: The Launch Party, or The Tale Of The Level Playing Field

by Jo Wyton and Maureen Lynas

Thursday evening saw the launch party of the third Undiscovered Voices anthology. In the anthology are twelve novel extracts (written by thirteen unpublished, unagented authors - including both myself and Maureen) and gorgeous illustrations by six very talented illustrators. Katie Dale has already blogged about the event here, and we don't want to get repetitive! So instead we'll focus on something else, something which came up in conversation a few times during the night.

It seems that one thing agents and editors want, what they really, really want is...

A level playing field.

Or at least they'd like, every now and then, for writers to act as though they're on one.

Because here's a secret (shh... don't tell anyone): agents and editors are people too. I know, shocking news.

The thing is, as writers we are used to sitting behind our laptops and sweating over every sentence, every word, until we don't think we get it any better. Then we send it out, and although we hope against hope for something positive, we inevitably expect to be rejected. If there is the merest sign of anything positive, we climb up to the nearest rooftop and dance a jig.

Now the UV launch party was great for a lot of reasons, but the main one for me was the intermingling of agent, editor and writer. There were no barriers in that room. If we wanted to approach people, we could. If people wanted to approach us, that was even better. So many surprises were had because of that breakdown of the neuroses which normally get the better of writers. Conversations were had that bore no relation to writing, or at least the anthology to hand, and more than that, they were enjoyed. This was a very different world than the one we are used to.

And here’s why. To a writer, the Industry Professional seems a mysterious creature. When we submit work, we think about what the person on the other end might say if they do like it, if they don't, and if they detest it with everything they have. Even if we know what the Professional looks like, we don't tend to think of them in that way when we know they have our work in their hands. We don't think of the person sitting at the other end of the e-mail, we only think about their reaction.

Will they like it, or won't they?

A number of times during the launch party, conversation turned to not only how intense the evening was for both writer and agent/editor, but to how much they were enjoying themselves. Partly, we imagine, this was due to the copious amounts of Prosecco that disappeared strangely fast. But it was also because agents and editors were surrounded by writers who weren’t afraid to talk to them.

Think about things from their point of view. Every month they receive hundreds of submissions. They know that with most of them, they either won't fall in love, or won't think that the book is ready to move on to the next stage. And yet they continue to fight through those slushpiles, because somewhere in there is the writer they would love to represent.

The reason we say 'love' is that for somebody to represent you, they have to LOVE your writing. Agents have to be able to walk in to a room and convince somebody to put money behind you and your book. Editors have to be able to face an acquisitions meeting and convince them all that your book is worth backing. You don't want somebody who likes your book, you want somebody who loves it.

And that's all agents and editors are looking for - writing they love. They want to find writers as badly as writers want to find them.

We wouldn't mind betting that when an agent or editor finds something they can get behind - something they LOVE - they look for the nearest jig-worthy rooftop as quickly as we do.

So next time you are at a conference or workshop, and you are avoiding eye contact with an agent or an editor in the desperate hope that they won't talk to you, go and say hello. You don't have to pitch (although don't tell anybody we said that). You really can just say hello. Act like there's a level playing field, and you never know, one might appear as if from nowhere.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Going back to your writing roots, with Celia Rees

I think it's fair to say that no list of top children's authors is complete without Celia Rees.

She is most widely known for her historical novels, including Witch Child, followed by Sorceress, Sovay and Pirates!, but her writing career began in contemporary teen thrillers. This year Celia has gone back to her roots with another contemporary thriller: This Is Not Forgiveness. Here Celia talks about writing This Is Not Forgiveness, and the process of going back to the future...

The question I’m asked most often is, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ And it’s a difficult one. Every book I write begins with an idea, but ideas can come from anywhere. All I can say for certain, is I know when one is there. You can’t dial up ideas and it doesn’t do to search too hard for them. Virginia Woolf once likened ideas to fish swimming in the great pool of the mind. Look too hard and nothing will break the surface. Turn too fast when you catch a glimpse of that great leaping fish, and it will disappear, leaving scarcely a ripple. You have to be subtle and you have to be quick.

Virginia Woolf

When I have an idea that could become a book, I feel a kind of thrilling excitement and I know to go with it. To dismiss that special feeling would be pure foolishness. To start on anything without it, would be like trying to breathe life into something that is already dead.

The idea for This Is Not Forgiveness came to me when I was watching Francois Truffaut’s film, Jules et Jim. What interested me was the triangular relationship between the two men, who are close friends, and this extraordinary girl, a real free spirit. They both fall in love with her, and I was thinking: You could update this. Make it now. I’d been writing historical novels. The book I was working on, The Fool’s Girl, was based on Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night. Shakespeare was one of the characters. So this new idea did not exactly fit my current profile but I knew that it would be my next novel and it would be contemporary.

Every Step You Take, Celia's first novel, and Fool's Girl, a historical novel - the style for which she is largely known

The story starting to tell itself in my head was happening now. That is when I got my second thrill of excitement. When I began writing, all those years ago in the early nineties, my first novel, Every Step You Take (now long out of print) was a contemporary thriller. I would be going back to my roots.

Could I still do it? Could I connect to modern teenagers? Could I mirror their world? Echo their voices? It was easy then. I was a teacher. My daughter was a teenager. But things had changed. I no longer teach. My daughter has grown up. Did that put me out of touch? Could I write something that would interest and engage teen readers, keep them turning the pages? It was a challenge but one I would have to take up. Once an idea is there, it is impossible to un-think. Once it is in my head, it has to be done.

I often have the first chapter a long time before I start writing, so I didn’t find that hard to do. I began to write in the voice of the main narrator, Jamie, who is seventeen. I was writing in the First Person, Present Tense. I’d written in the FP before, but not Present Tense. It took a bit of getting used to, but felt right for the book. My first idea was that the book would be written entirely from Jamie’s point of view.

Then came a piece of writer serendipity by the way of an Arvon Course with Patrick Ness. I was there as Patrick’s co-tutor, but the Arvon magic can work for us as well. We sat in on each other’s sessions and took part in the workshops. Anyone who knows Patrick’s work, knows that he is passionate about voice. He is also a daring and innovative writer. He made me think that I could write in other voices, too. So I made Jamie one of three narrators, joined by the other male character, Rob, his older brother who is a soldier, and the charismatic, enigmatic Caro.

Arvon + Patrick Ness = a golden equation even for the practised amongst us

Once I decided this, the book really came alive. I didn’t have any problem with the voices at all. It was almost like taking dictation. I wrote the book very quickly. Far faster than my historical fiction because I didn’t have to keep stopping. I enjoyed being able to write without the constraints of period life and language and writing in different voices was exhilarating.

The resulting novel is very different from that first book but I’m glad I decided to go back to my roots. The book is finished now and published. Did I succeed in meeting the challenge? Only time and the reader can tell.

Slushpile note: I was lucky enough to receive an early copy of This Is Not Forgiveness, and am happy to attest to its brilliance! It's a book that stays with you long after you've finished reading it. Jo

Monday 6 February 2012

Beverley Birch - Blog View from my Desk January 2012

Beverley Birch is friend and mentor to many slushpilers and published authors alike. Beverley is a senior commissioning editor for Hachette Children's Books and three times nominated Brandford Boase editor. She is a writer of more than 40 books including novels, picture books, biographies and retellings of classic works. Her novel, 'Rift' came out in 2006 and you know you are in the hands of a true storyteller when you read the very first page.

I’m often asked what I think of the ‘state of publishing’. It all depends on whose prism I’m peering through. More than ever publishing seems divided into the pessimistic and the optimistic - gloom and a mourning of lost times on the one hand, promise and widening opportunity – e-technology and the ease of linking with readers through social media – on the other.

The view from my desk is coloured by the fact that the editorial and commissioning landscape is by its nature long-term – the book I acquire now will reach its readers in a year or more. The first-time writer I begin to support now will reach their writing maturity after several books – and not necessarily in one judged commercially successful, though it may be wonderful for a reader. 

Other sectors of publishing – sales including international rights sales, marketing, publicity, are dealing with the finished object and its immediate reception in bookshops, libraries and partner publishers, by reviewers and readers. It’s a capricious landscape seamed with successes and failures of the moment.

publishing - a tricky path to navigate
 By contrast a commissioning editor has to have a steady nerve and a long view. If I think something is good, just because it doesn’t break through commercially or doesn’t get picked up for prizes, the book hasn’t changed. It’s still the book I believed in – the writer is still the writer I thought worth backing. You keep hold of the qualities you admire, navigate the shifting currents of commercial success and failure while staying true to your own conception of a good book. Not easy in the current climate, and all too easy to veer into the pessimistic camp ...
talking of lost tales...

So, firstly, the bleak bit:

And that’s about how incredibly difficult it is, and getting worse, to get a book – however good, however much everyone believes in it – through to its readers. A whole host of hurdles are in the way – conditioned not by the content or quality of the book, but by the economic models and sales targets of publishing and bookselling of today. It has of course always been like that, but the goalposts for any one individual book have moved. Manuscripts at acquisition are judged by whether they are likely to ‘pay for themselves ‘- achieve individual sales targets that justify publishing them, and then by whether they have – in those terms – succeeded or not. There is little room for the book predicted to have modest sales, but which simply deserves to be published because it is so good – and fighting for that kind of book can be dispiriting.

There’s nothing new in the fact that a story requiring sustained commitment from a young reader, yet rewarding and enriching if the reader sticks with it – will not sell as many as one that offers instant gratification and can be swiftly enjoyed by the less committed youngster. 

Does that mean that the first book should not be published? Sadly, the answer is that these days it usually won’t be – because it won’t (defined by target sales) ‘work’ for the publisher. Yet authors (and editors) who have contact with youngsters in reading groups at school and library know that readers of book A exist: they’re borrowers not necessarily buyers – an impossible conundrum for publishers facing a library and school sector turning away from investment in books. Yet the readers are there and, if given access to forums or to authors, will discuss books enthusiastically and intelligently, reflecting their hunger for them.

Long gone are the days when the sure-fire commercial big-hitters supported the commissioning of books we just loved and felt should be made available to young readers, but which would always net a smaller readership.

The questions now are: will the book/author be promoted by the major high street booksellers, by supermarkets, is the ‘the hook’ good enough? Windows of opportunity flung open initially in the high street get slammed shut in the blink of an eye if a book doesn’t achieve early recognition – no time for its readership to grow. Survival of books (publication, then maintenance in print) is skewed by raw sales results.
sales results don't tell the whole story

Though ebooks is changing that, allowing books to remain available well beyond a print life – that is part of the optimistic view. Add affordable Print-on-demand, into the mix – and it’s the best of both worlds.

And what about the chance for authors to reach out to their readership unhindered by their relative importance or unimportance in their publishers marketing and publicity priorities – the freedoms social networks offer to authors large and small in profile. It’s an inevitable fact that publishers can only focus on publication – and then they move on to the books in the next publication round. In very real ways, the author can support now through the entire life of a book – and keep it alive, keep readers interested in it. That’s most definitely good ….

Juliet Clare Bell with a happy audience for 'Don't Panic, Annika!'

And children are reading, are reflecting their interest in story and story-making (ShoutAbout! online creative writing magazine very recently launched by CWISL – Children’s Writers and Illustrators in South London, has had a steady building of young visitors to the site and submission of new work by them.) And that’s one initiative among many providing evidence that kids are interested in story, in creativity, in story-making – a powerful route to literacy, and reading.

And there are some brilliant books being published, from fine established writers and debut authors alike. When you take the long view – and to borrow from Julia Eccleshare when she introduced the Branford Boase Award in 2011 – if that shortlist was anything to go by, writing and publishing for children is actually in very good shape. And that reflects that everywhere there are writers writing and editors supporting books they love, regardless of how hard it is. We don’t give up, do we? 

So in the end, I suppose I’ve stepped decisively into the optimist’s camp …

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Slated: Getting it Covered

Teri Terry
It has been a year with a lot to smile about: the last twelve months have seen an agent, and not just any agent but Caroline Sheldon; a publishing deal for Slated with Megan Larkin and Orchard Books; and finally: a long-awaited moment. An actual book cover!!
Read on, and there just might be a chance to read Slated before the 3rd May publication date...

One of the most exciting moments on the road to getting my book on the shelves:

Seeing the final cover for the first time!!!!


Isn't it gorgeous?

OK, it has been appearing on the internet here and there for a little while, but this is my official unveiling. And, for the first time anywhere, you can see the back cover, too:

Seeing the final cover was one of those wooo-hooo moments that made it feel more real.

This book is really and truly happening. Isn't it?

Of course, I didn't have that much to do with the general awesomeness of the cover.

I might be unusual in this, but I can honestly say that until the cover was raised by my editor, I wasn't thinking about it. Yes, I was doing that whole picturing-my-book-on-the-shelf thing every time I went past a bookstore, but how it looked was curiously blank in this fantasy. I didn't have a pre-conceived idea what it should or shouldn't look like. I mean, I was pretty sure it shouldn't be pink and fluffy, but apart from that? Nope.

As it turns out this is a good way to enter the process.

This is how it happened. My editor called one day and asked if I had any ideas about the cover. Then she briefed the designer, the very talented Thy Bui.

To the left is the first cover I saw: the one everyone liked the best. Especially those eyes. The whole thing looked a bit Celia Rees, and everyone was excited.

Now that I had something concrete to look at...while I loved it, I wasn't sure it conveyed the futuristic, psychological thriller that Slated is. I thought it needed something I called the 'Freaky Factor' - the weird and different - for this dystopian tale. I came up with crazy ideas which were wisely ignored; they sent me more covers to look at to aid discussion.

This was when I started to fully appreciate the amount of hard work designers like Thy do. They sent me another three covers - all completely different designs, different faces. I later learned these were just some of the original designs Thy came up with. There was another I liked: a different girl, in profile, with an interesting slate type effect background. The original face was still preferred by all of us, but they came up with the idea of changing the first cover to include that Slating effect: brilliant!

The next version, to the right, was the first attempt at this synthesis. I loved it.

Cue panic: the Australian photographer could not be contacted. Every means, even Twitter, were attempted. With deadlines tight, Thy created yet another cover: a similar idea, different face and execution. It was gorgeous, and I was torn: I loved them both.

Then the photographer was found, and there were two covers in the running. Other factors were considered: the availability of other photos for the next book was also important. I kept changing my mind which I loved the most.

In the end - you can see the original face was the one chosen. I felt some regret at letting the other one go, yet over time, I'm sure the right decision was reached. The other cover was gorgeous, and very pretty. In the end this one as developed into the final version was a much better choice: far darker, more arresting. A better representative of the story.

And I must admit, I like the idea that both model and photographer are Australian - since I am, too (I'm sort of a Canadian/Aussie hybrid with a few other things thrown in).
Slated - complete with gorgeous cover - is published on 3rd of May! But there is a way you can read it before then...minus the gorgeous cover, but with a pretty nifty proof cover on it, as modeled here by chief muse, Banrock.
For a chance to win a signed proof of Slated, go to the Slated website - all the details are there. This closes in two weeks, at 12:01 am on Feb 16 EST (5:01 a.m. UK time), and is open internationally.

UPDATE: I've interviewed Hayley, the cover girl on Slated! You can find it on, here.

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